Arguments Made in Abuse Lawsuit Involving Nun

By Janice Gregorson
November 29, 2007

Did the Franciscan Sisters know that one of its nuns had sexually abused children and failed to take action to prevent foreseeable misconduct?

That's at the crux of arguments made Wednesday by attorneys in a lawsuit filed two years ago by a woman who claimed she was repeatedly molested by Sister Benen Kent in the mid-1960s while a student in Chicago.

Kent is now dead, and the lawsuit names as defendant the Franciscan Sisters, doing business as the Sisters of St. Francis, headquartered in Rochester.

The allegations by Christine Bertrand, who now lives in Sierre Madre, Calif., are that the Order and others knew or should have known of Kent's "pedophile impulses and behavior, but failed to act on that knowledge," to prevent future abuse. The lawsuit claims negligence, negligent supervision of Kent and negligent retention of Kent.

It is one of three lawsuits filed in the past two years alleging sexual abuse by Kent. The women said their memories of the abuse were suppressed until recent years. The lawsuit brought by Karen Britten of Chicago was dismissed by an Olmsted district judge earlier this year. That ruling is now under appeal. Some of the claims in a lawsuit filed by Patricia Schwartz of Eden Prairie, Minn., were also dismissed. The defense is seeking to appeal that to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

On Wednesday, attorneys were back in court arguing the Bertrand case.

St. Paul attorney Thomas Wieser, one of the attorneys for the defendant, seeks dismissal of the negligence counts, saying there is no admissible evidence to support the claims.

He said Bertrand must show the Franciscans had knowledge of prior allegations of sexual abuse by Kent and that the alleged abuse of Bertrand was foreseeable and preventable.

"Without foreseeability, there is no negligence," he said.

Wieser went over statements of several witnesses, including three fellow nuns who Bertrand claims knew of allegations that Kent had sexually abused students. But Wieser said all three deny knowing of rumors of allegations of sexual abuse by Kent.

The complaint alleges that Bertrand was abused by Kent repeatedly from 1962 to 1967. At that time, Bertrand was a student at St. Juliana's school in Chicago and Kent was a piano teacher. Bertrand also alleges she was sexually abused by Kent later at the Mother House in Rochester. The lawsuit said Bertrand suppressed memories of the abuse until 2002. Kent died in 2003. Bertrand filed the lawsuit in 2005.

Kathleen O'Connor, one of the St. Paul attorneys representing Bertrand, told Judge Jodi Williamson that "there is strong evidence of negligent failure" on the part of the Order to supervise Kent.

She said there is no evidence that Kent was supervised at all in her one-on-one piano lesson classes with students.

O'Connor said Kent abused six of eight witnesses they have interviewed.

"There is strong evidence the order had knowledge of her abuse," O'Connor said, and that they failed to take action to prevent it from continuing. She urged the judge to deny the defense motion.

Attorneys have been given 60 days in which to submit final written documents. Once all materials are submitted, the judge will have 90 days in which to issue a ruling.


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